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Who is Gifford Pinchot?
Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), who speaks so movingly of the high calling of citizenship, knew partisan politics inside out.
His family’s financial success came coupled with distinguished political activism at the local, state, and national levels – and he embraced his progenitors’ intense engagement with the body politic.
As founding chief of the U. S. Forest Service (est. 1905), he wheedled Congress into expanding the agency’s budgets and its authority to protect, regulate, and steward the national forests and grasslands. After President Taft fired him in 1910 – for insubordination! – Pinchot became a driving force behind Theodore Roosevelt’s insurgent Bull Moose 1912 presidential campaign, writing some of the candidate’s most blistering speeches. His zealousness later haunted his electoral ambitions: to win two terms as Pennsylvania’s governor proved a Herculean task, given that state’s take-no-prisoners political environment.
Being tough went with the territory, he assured his nephew Harcourt Johnstone in 1927, then standing for Parliament in his native England. Losing did too: “I’ve been licked so many times in so many ways that I’ve sort of become immune to it.”
Yet for all Pinchot’s love of the political rough-and-tumble, he repeatedly argued that democracy functions best when the citizenry and their representatives pursue the collective good; when they negotiated their differences, not exaggerated them.
This was especially critical for public servants: “Learn tact simply by being absolutely honest and sincere,” he told Forest Service employees, “and by learning to recognize the point of view of the other man and meet him with arguments he will understand.” After all, “a public official is there to serve the public and not run them.”
In no other way could the Forest Service achieve the mission Pinchot had set for the land-management organization: “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.”
This maxim became the mantra for Pinchot’s gubernatorial campaigns in the mid-1920s and early 1930s. Because conservative Republicans despised his progressivism and Democrats controlled the state’s large bloc of urban voters, Pinchot had to fashion an odd (yet winning) coalition. Feminists, minorities, miners and mill workers, the dispossessed and impoverished, prohibitionists and small farmers turned out in force for this well-heeled man of the people.
Once in office, his supporters cheered as he tapped the first woman and African American to serve in the state’s cabinet; intervened on behalf of striking workers; and secured passage of an impressive array of social-service initiatives and environmental protections. Still, this legislation only became law because Pinchot dealt faithfully with his opponents (and they with him). His was a conscientious pragmatism.
He believed deeply, too, in a binding, reciprocal relationship between the governed and their government. At the 1889 constitutional-centennial celebrations in his hometown of Milford, Pennsylvania, 24-year-old Gifford Pinchot assured his fellow citizens that while “we have a share in the commonwealth, … the commonwealth has a share in us.” As such, it has first claim “to our service, our thought, and action,” a credo that citizen Pinchot lived to the fullest.
Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, and author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism.